Frontline: Bellingham bridge honoring Confederate general needs name change
Monuments honoring the Confederacy are still widespread across the country, but whether they should remain has become an important topic of discussion.
Bellingham’s Pickett Bridge was first built in 1857, running over Whatcom Creek on Dupont Street. It was originally built for military purposes by George E. Pickett while he was a U.S. Army officer. He later became Confederate major general in the Civil War.
Amid national debates over what to do with Confederate monuments, cities like New Orleans have made the decision to remove theirs.
“It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a speech from 2015. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
The Civil War remains a pinnacle of America’s racist history. Having a bridge named after a Confederate general clearly shows a disrespect for people of color and those who have fought, and continue to fight, against racial inequality in this country. A change needs to be made.
Pickett, who resided in Washington and headed the construction of Fort Bellingham prior to the Civil War, returned to his home state of Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. Toward the end of the Civil War, Pickett ordered the hanging of 22 Confederate troops who had shifted over to the Union’s side.
The hangings triggered a war crime investigation against Pickett, leading him to flee the country to Canada.
“During the Civil War, Pickett was appalled by the notion of freeing slaves and arming black men to fight.”
Lesley Gordon, historian
“During the Civil War, Pickett was appalled by the notion of freeing slaves and arming black men to fight,” historian Lesley Gordon told the The Bellingham Herald in 2015.
This is the person Bellingham has continued to honor by leaving his name attached to the bridge: a man who betrayed his country to fight to defend racism and the inhumane practice of slavery in America, and a coward who fled from his crimes instead of living up to his wrongdoings. Those who argue that Pickett deserves to be honored as a Bellingham historical figure are disregarding the harm done by glorifying those who support such ideals.
However, a change cannot be made unless the people of Bellingham decide to stand against the glorification of prominent Confederate figures.
In the past, the City Council has changed Columbus Day to Coast Salish Day, and Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street in order to honor Bellingham’s indigenous communities.
Right now the Bellingham City Council needs to take leadership.
Councilmember Terry Bornemann sponsored the renaming of Billy Frank Jr. Street, but when he was asked to comment on renaming the Pickett Bridge he said he had not thought about it and would not develop a position until the issue is brought to the council.
Incumbent and 2nd Ward Council candidate Gene Knutson, 6th Ward Council candidate Quenby Peterson and Council at-large candidate Eric Bostrom also refused to take a position on the issue.
Incumbent and 4th Ward Council candidate Pinky Vargas and incumbent and Council at-large candidate Roxanne Murphy were contacted via email twice and three times respectively since July 5. Murphy was also contacted by phone three times and was left two voicemails, while Vargas was called twice. Councilmember April Barker was left two voicemails and three emails. Councilmember Dan Hammill was also emailed once and called twice over a six-day period. The Western Front did not receive a response to our questions from any of these representatives.
Incumbent Council President Michael Lilliquist said that he would keep the Pickett Bridge’s name to preserve the history of the bridge, arguing that the bridge is not there to honor Pickett. Lilliquist suggested remaking the sign to record that he fought for American slavery.
“Treat him not as hero or as villain, but as the person of his times that he was,” Lilliquist said in an email. “Record the truth, all of it.”
We understand the importance of preserving history, whether the history is good or bad, but the current Pickett Bridge holds no historical significance to the City of Bellingham. According to the Bellingham Herald, the original bridge that was constructed by Pickett for military purposes in 1857 was replaced in 1920 by the current one. Now it only stands as a monument to honor Pickett.
“[Pickett’s] actions after settling Fort Bellingham are problematic and horrific. There is another location in Bellingham, his home, that also carries his name. I’d like to see an interpretive sign placed there that gives all of his history, not just the socially acceptable version of him.”
Jean Layton, Bellingham City Council at-large candidate
Remaking the sign to record his true history would do nothing to remove the message that Bellingham thinks a Confederate general is worthy to be honored in monument form.
Council at-large candidate Jean Layton opposes the current name of the Pickett Bridge, and suggested renaming the bridge to honor the engineers who built it.
“[Pickett’s] actions after settling Fort Bellingham are problematic and horrific,” Layton said in an email to The Western Front. “There is another location in Bellingham, his home, that also carries his name. I’d like to see an interpretive sign placed there that gives all of his history, not just the socially acceptable version of him.”
The Pickett House, where Pickett lived when he resided in Bellingham, is listed under the National Register of Historic Places, and is therefore protected by the government, seen as a place worthy of preservation. The Pickett Bridge is not.
It is important that we are not honoring those who fought for racism and slavery in this day and age where we should be supporting disadvantaged groups and fostering diversity. If the Pickett Bridge’s name does not change, the City of Bellingham is sending an extremely damaging message to its people. It’s a message that not only perpetuates racist ideals, but monuments to them in the form of a bridge that many residents drive across on a day-to-day basis.
We should name our public landmarks after role models that we aspire to be and people we want our children to follow. Not the first colonial settler to lay claim to it.
The people of Bellingham need to stand up against these racist ideals and vote in this upcoming election, as well as contact their government officials in order to incite change.